Yasir Arafat is one of the great survival artists of his time, but he may have survived his own significance. He is, politically speaking, already living posthumously. He is a mere place-holder for a Palestinian politics that has not yet emerged. And he owes his marginalization, his historical impotence, not merely to the Israeli tanks that are surrounding him in Ramallah, in deserving recompense for his failure to bring to justice the Palestinian assassins of an Israeli Cabinet minister, and not merely to Ariel Sharon's long- standing grudge against him. He owes his impotence to his failure to have delivered to his people anything except a vast suppurating sense of grievance, a self-pity the size of Palestine.
Arafat has been condemned to the periphery of history by the facts of his history. And he has not been condemned only by Israel. The really remarkable thing about Yasir Arafat's physical and diplomatic isolation is that the government of the United States supports it and the governments of most of the Arab states do not vociferously or even sincerely object to it. The man seems to have reached the end of his elasticity. It is deeply satisfying to watch the escape artist, the man who pandered to everybody, fail to escape, and find no object for his pandering. In 2000 at Camp David and then in 2001 at Taba, he was offered almost everything, and he walked away from it. Perhaps he was counting on everybody to forget that this was so. Oddly enough, they have not forgotten.
And yet it is important to think beyond the diabolization of Yasir Arafat, because it cannot be the end of the story. The story is grimmer even than that. There is Arafat and there are the Palestinians. The discrediting of Arafat is fine and just, but it runs the danger of reducing the analysis of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to a difference of views about one man. The really disturbing thing about the conflict is not that Arafat stands in the way of peace. The really disturbing thing is that if Arafat got out of the way, there would still be no reason to think hopefully about the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
The controversy about Arafat must not be allowed to obscure the reality of Palestinian politics, which is that the Palestinian community is in a condition of severe internecine conflict. Over the past decade, the political culture of the Palestinians has undergone a dramatic transformation. The supremacy of secular Palestinian nationalism is long gone. The secularists have been overwhelmed by the jihadists, by the Allah-intoxicated haters of Israel; and it did not help the secularists that they saw the Oslo accords as an opportunity to enrich themselves, and that they failed to offer any principled opposition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for whom Hezbollah represents the glittering model of how to think about, and act against, the Jewish state.
Who are the Palestinians? Are they nationalists who want security and dignity, or are they chiliasts who want revenge and redemption? Do they aspire to sanctity or to statehood? Do they wish to go to heaven or to the World Trade Organization? The later years of Yasir Arafat's rule will be remembered as the period in which the Palestinian leadership attempted to dodge these questions. The sterility of the Palestinians' present situation is the direct consequence of a leadership that thought it could praise moderation in the morning and martyrdom in the evening, a leadership that bequeathed a dreadful confusion about the moral and political substance of Palestinian life.
Israel can make peace with the Palestinians, Israel must make peace with the Palestinians, but not until the Palestinians decide who they are. Are they Abu Mazen and his diplomatic reason, or are they Wafa Idris and her suicidal bomb? (Suicidal, but also homicidal: The self-immolation of these Palestinian zealots is so fascinating to the media that they forget sometimes to mention that these people are also plain murderers.) Yasir Arafat likes to believe that he is all of the Palestinians, but he cannot be all of them, at least not coherently. And it is the incoherence of his leadership that has brought him to the little siege in Ramallah. There is a war--sometimes a shooting war--taking place between Palestinians, and it can no longer be disguised by the war taking place between Israelis and Palestinians. Arafat refuses to take sides in the Palestinian-Palestinian war, and so he has nothing to offer the future of Palestinian politics, which is to say, he has nothing to offer the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. He is over, but the struggle for Palestinian identity is not over; and that struggle imposes upon Israel not so much the obligation of peace as the obligation of vigilance.
This article ran in the February 18, 2002, issue of the magazine.